So, how did an innocuous little word – so – come to be a scaffolding on which we hoist our conversations, and without which we can barely begin a sentence? How did it edge out all potential linguistic contenders and plunk itself at the forefront of our thoughts – sometimes prior to any evidence of thought?
I'm not referring to the version of so that is a logical enabler, the if/then sort of so: She came, so I went. This so is full of content, hinting at a cause and effect relationship between two parts of a sentence. Such a so is logical, legitimate, beyond reproach. So is the so that intensifies the word that follows: "That is so lame."
The so in question, the so that begins a sentence with no earthly reason to do so, is not a tool of enhancement or logic – it is the poster-child of illogic. This so is a pause, a ploy, a nonreferential reference at the beginning of a conversation. It is a transition from nowhere. "So how are you?" evokes a disclosure of no thing, "So I'm fine."
Somewhere, somehow, not so long ago, this so came to be a place-marker, a pretender, a vamp-'til-ready sort of miscreant. You know, like you know used to be? Or like like once was?
Today's computer-weaned generation, my son's, has evolved its own conversational crutch appropriate to its cyberprocessing, multitasking, neuronally hyperactive inner-world. It's a place marker that can hold its own, pause the conversation before it even begins – so about five other cybertasks can be completed – in the time it takes to emit a so.
"So, how's it going?" asks my Skyping son, buying himself an additional few seconds to opt out of a chat room, abort a text message, and put three other digital transactions on hold.
So maybe so makes sense. If you've just left several digital interactions dangling, and you reenter one, you indeed are starting in the middle, not at the beginning. The only thing left to figure out is exactly which conversation you're re-entering.
Thus so. It's all-purpose, a conversational feeler calculated to recoup paused data. "So, where did we leave off" is reduced to "So."
This clue to the source of so has come not only from personal interactions with my son's contemporaries (which may simply reflect my ability to galvanize a pause), but from years of stumbling through freshly sown fields of sos on such daily interview shows as "Fresh Air" or "Charlie Rose." I've observed that very thoughtful, technologically savvy types are particularly prone to the predangling so: "So when we first started sequencing the human genome...."
Lately, this theory of the tech-savvy source of so has begun to elevate the little two-letter word for me, as well as legitimize its deployment. Because what the word cannot say, the tone can convey. So – with the pursuant pause, when emitted just, well, so – can appear full of portent, as if anything is capable of occurring once the gauntlet has been thrown down. So that's my excuse anyway.
So what's yours?
Anna Shaff lives and writes in San Francisco.